As we come close to the 50th anniversary of the Watts Rebellion (August 11-17, 1965) in the city of Los Angeles, it makes for a suitable background to examine police violence in Toronto against African-Canadians. The working-class constitutes the vast majority within this group and the collaboration between white supremacy and class exploitation tend to tag them as a threat to the social order. The police are the agents of the state who interact with this community on a daily basis. The cops are the coercive arm of the state that force people to abide by the laws of the ruling-class. It is not hard to see the basis for conflict between an oppressed community and the cops.
The Watts Rebellion’s immediate cause was police brutality against Marquette Frye, an African-American man, who lived in the community of Watts. After the arrest of Marquette and his mother and brother, over 10,000 residents of Watts came out in protest against the police. Their action led to this pivotal moment of urban uprising in the United States. This civil disturbance could be seen as the opening salvo of the Black Power Movement with its militant resistance that moved beyond the non-violence stance of the Civil Rights Movement.
The telling element about the Watts Rebellion and other major uprisings by African-Americans is the role of police violence as the immediate cause of these insurrections. Nonetheless, these revolts have social, economic and political oppression as the ultimate factors. Unemployment, poor educational facilities, inadequate housing, and the lack of government investment in the social and physical infrastructure in the community serve as some of the specific issues that ignite these uprisings.
When people think of racially-inspired police violence in North America, they instinctively focus on the United States. Canada is normally ignored and seen as a welcoming place. However, police brutality against African-Canadians has been a longstanding experience.
According to writer-activist Xinavane Mawu Kush, “I can even go back farther to the generation of my grandparents, around the 1910s and 1920s when the Toronto Black community was the size of a blip and we were said to be a very law-abiding group, yet, there were ongoing complaints of systemic, unfair treatment by cops.”
With the influx of African-Caribbean immigrants to Toronto in the 1970s, conflicts between the police and community became more noticeable. The community’s organized resistance to police violence emerged after the killing of Albert Johnson on August 26, 1979.
The African-Canadian community mobilized thousands of demonstrators in the streets. It waged a relentless campaign to get the police charged for the killing, which in the words of Jean Augustine, “…I can tell you I was on the ground floor and I was in all of the activities around Albert Johnson. Albert Johnson was one of the earliest police killings in the Black community that got into that national/international attention.” The two white cops, Constables William Inglis and Walter Cargnelli, were charged with manslaughter, but were acquitted.
African-Canadians in Toronto felt the police had declared open season on them. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association highlights the problem of police shootings, “Between 1978 and 1992, Ontario police officers had shot 1 Black woman and at least 13 Black men, 8 of who[m] were killed. 11 of the 14 shootings occurred in Toronto.”
The killings and acts of brutality by the police against African-Canadians continued over the years in Toronto. However, on May 2, 1992, white undercover cop Robert Rice shot and killed 22-year-old Raymond Lawrence and the community was in no mood to take this one passively. On May 4, 1992, a demonstration by the community led to the Yonge Street Uprising. This civil unrest is noteworthy because it was the first time that the African-Canadian community in Toronto carried out an uprising against the state. The provincial government was forced to enact a number of anti-racist and equity policies.
But police violence still remained a reality after the rebellion. Gabriella Pedicelli, an author, carried research on police killings between 1994 and 1997 in two major Canadian cities. According to University of Toronto criminologist Peter Wortley, “[Pedicelli] found that although African Canadians represented less than 2 percent of Montreal’s Black population in 1991, 5 of the 11 people shot and killed by the police during the study period (45%) were Black males. Similarly, although African Canadians represented only 3.3 percent of Toronto’s population in 1991, 6 of the 12 civilians (50%) shot and killed by the police during the study period were Black males.”
Today, the major issue around which the community is mobilizing with respect to police violence is a repressive police investigative and information gathering practice called carding. Carding is similar to New York City and Chicago’s “stop and frisk” street harassment measure that is mostly directed against African-Americans and Latinos/Latinas.
Carding in Toronto and across Canada is used in non-criminal encounters by the police. Therefore, the targeted person is not a suspect in a crime or observed carrying out an act of criminality. However, the individual is stopped, questioned and has his or her personal information documented and stored in police databases.
With the carding of members of the community, the police have effectively eliminated reasonable and probable grounds or reasonable suspicion as justification for stopping and questioning people. Essentially they are engaging in physical or psychological detention with no regard for people’s right to not be subjected to undue search and seizure and unwarranted detention.
African-Canadians are disproportionately affected by carding in the city of Toronto. One investigative series by the Toronto Star on personal information collected by the cops revealed that African-Canadians made up 25 percent of the people carded. However, they are just 8.4 percent of the city’s population.
In the 72 police patrol zone across the city, African-Canadians are carded “at significantly higher rates than their overall census population by zone.” The cops claimed that carding is needed in neighbourhoods with high crime rates. Yet African-Canadians are carded at staggeringly greater rates than whites (11 and 17.3 times higher) in wealthier, predominantly white, and relatively crime-free neighbourhoods.
An event that demonstrates the cops’ demonization of the community is the annual summer festival Caribana, which is similar to its counterpart in Trinidad or Brazil. In 2009, an economic impact study by the Ipsos Reid polling firm revealed that Caribana contributed US$438 million to the economies of Toronto, Ontario and Canada. This level of economic impact makes it the largest festival in Canada.
However, since 1985, the cops have treated and policed Caribana like it is a threat to national security. In that year, a police officer harassed a man for what he thought was possession of marijuana at a Caribana concert on Olympic Island. The cop was stabbed and four others were injured. Dozens of revellers were injured. In 1986, the cops increased their presence at the parade by 33 percent.
The police relate to Caribana in the same way that they operate in the neighbourhoods like an occupation army. According to British academic Peter Jackson, “Their principal concerns are public safety and ensuring the continuous movement of the parade. Their strategy is essentially one of containment.”
African-Canadians continue to organize against police violence. African-Canadian revolutionaries are quite clear that the cops exist to serve and protect the materials interests of the white, ruling-class. As such, the police and the African-Canadian working class will always be in conflict.
Ajamu Nangwaya is an organizer, educator and writer. He is an organizer with the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence.